In the season of Advent, which began this week, Christians celebrate and remember the coming of Jesus, the Anointed One. Advent means “coming”—it’s an ordinary English word, if somewhat out of fashion nowadays—but the season is also sometimes called “the waiting season” because it is as much about waiting and preparing for his coming as it is about the “advent” itself. Much like Lent, which prepares us by penitence, solemn reflection, sorrow, and self-denial to joyfully celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday and in the rest of Eastertide, Advent is a time of penitence and reflection as we wait for Christmas. Each Saturday in Advent, I intend to post a short essay reflecting on one aspect of the season.
There are two hymns that in my mind sum up the season of Advent perfectly: “O come, O come, Emmanuel” and “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” The title of the second is apt: Jesus was indeed “long-expected.” Almost from the beginning of time, for around four thousand years by then, God had been making promises of redemption but delaying full fulfilment of them, answering his people’s prayers with “Not yet.” (But fulfilling many other promises—the desolation of Babylon and Tyre and Elijah’s drought leap to mind—to show that he keeps his promises.)
The first recorded promise is in the story in which our first parents were cast out of the Garden of Eden. God tells the serpent that the woman’s “seed” will crush its head, but it will strike his heel, and performs the first sacrifice himself to produce skin clothing for the couple. Humanity has been at war with snakes off and on ever since, but we understand the serpent to be “the accuser,” and he continued to effectively rule most of the world until the coming of the Christ.
God promised Abraham that his descendants would be uncountably numerous and that through his seed “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” By the first century the Jews had spread throughout the known world like scattered sand, but they had not had much influence on the surrounding cultures.
God told the children of Israel that there would be one like Moses (i.e. a saving redeemer) from among them, whom they were to follow. Each of the judges, a few of the kings, and a number of the prophets arguably fit as partial fulfilments of that promise, but the salvation that God used them to bring never reached the level set by Moses bringing them out of slavery.
And so on: God made promise after promise, quite vaguely at first but becoming gradually more specific (until Simeon was promised that the Anointed One would come within his lifetime), and kept waiting to fulfil his promises until “the time had fully come.” God had repeated “not yet,” but “in Christ all God’s promises are always Yes!”
Just like God waited until the Canaanites’ sins had become “complete” before he drove them out of their land and gave it to the children of Israel, God waited on the order of four thousand years from his first promise of redemption until he began full fulfilment. (But Not all of his long-term outstanding promises were fulfilled in the person of the Christ, or even in his first coming; more on that in the next few weeks.)